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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

“Starved for Color”: Work, Mothering, & COVID

Ebony Lumumba, PhD

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Keywords: childcare, teaching, Beloved, Black women, mothering, freedom

Categories: Parenting as (Im)possibility in Impossible Circumstances; Revisionings of Teaching, Facilitation, and Professional Leadership; BIPOC Perspectives on Labor and Love during COVID

March 2020.  We were studying Beloved.  The spiteful baby ghost took her place in our classroom and we argued about trauma, love, and being “starved for color” for fifty minutes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (Morrison 38).  One week before the world closed, I was teaching a Toni Morrison literature seminar and my students and I were thinking about the palpable presence of memories and loss.  And then memories were all we had.  Memories of not fearing being in large crowds or giving indiscriminate hi-fives.  Memories of shopping for toilet paper that would be there.  Fully-stocked.  On the shelves.  All we could do is remember those days that were not perfect by any stretch but possessed moments of feeling free like Sethe and Halle and the Pauls and Sixo and their “Memory of Sweet Home” (13).  And just like Schoolteacher, with no warning at all, fear came to find us and we lost each other in the wake of COVID—with only our memories of those moments that felt free.

We lost each other.  A classroom full of twenty-three creative and curious young people disappeared into words on a screen.  Their beautifully decorated journals affirming that they were their best things became cold, sterile typed responses attached to emails.  Going from marking them present to literally not being able to find my students shocked my existence.  As the weeks went by, I would learn that missed assignments were the result of homelessness for some.  Others struggled to find their words without being able to connect with eyes that affirmed their thoughts from across the classroom.  We had studied Denver’s starvation for belonging when Beloved disrupted her home.  We were not prepared for our own haunted disruption.   

After my campus shut down and we were all supposed to go somewhere safe, I found myself at home with my children—trying desperately to muster the energy and creativity of my Morrison seminar.  This small class that had awakened what drew me to my field…was gone.  In December 2019, in preparation to teach an author I fell in love with when I was just 19 years old, I printed and read all ninety-five pages of my master’s thesis.  I had written about Morrison and mothering, about madness and women, about freedom.  My first graduate class was a Morrison seminar.  It was in that class, sitting around a conference table, that I finally felt my feet under me.  Like I could stand up and trek through this field that rarely, if ever, considers Black women and our journeys equitably.

Morrison and her work gave me color during days that felt far too black and white—too stark and certain.  These memories—of how proud I was as a high school senior of Sethe’s perceived madness and how much I wanted to cry with Denver as a junior in college and where I felt the strength to demand that the world “call me my name” as a graduate student—guided me in developing a course that I loved (117).  Thick love.  Perhaps too thick.  In Beloved, Paul D admonishes Sethe that “to love anything that much was dangerous” (45).  That moment in the novel points to the inevitability of loss in my estimation—especially for folks whose freedom always seems provisional.  My people.  I’d proudly told my students on the first day of class that they were about to embark on the Blackest course they had ever taken.  That they would be welcomed to freely explore and express their Black identities and experiences as we studied together.  That Morrison, as our ancestor, had granted us permission and safe passage into celebrating Blackness and all its beautiful nuance.  I had loved a thing—a class—thick and too much and I lost it.  I lost them.  And I thought I’d lost my color—my free.

At home, searching for my students and the color Morrison had been supplying me throughout my education and career, I struggled for ways to soothe my five-year-old daughter from the loss of her kindergarten classroom as it was replaced with a machine she was normally not allowed to touch–where she searched for her playmates in tiny windows and could not understand the phrase “mute.”  I thought she must have felt ousted like Denver by this menacing haunting that kept us in our house yet forced us to try and create normal.  I read and reread about Sethe and the mossy teeth boys and nursed my one-year-old to simultaneously soothe her and redeem Sethe and her stolen milk.  My sweet girls reeling from their own loss of the lives they knew were like those two orange squares on Baby Suggs’ quilt.  Their presence made the absence of the dynamic of caring for them while doing the work I loved shout. 

I found the color that I realized I’d been starved of well before COVID in my mothering.  My Morrison class—those bold and brilliant students—allowed me to dream of creating that color for myself.  When it seemed that dream was snatched away and that color was gone, it was Morrison again with my students as her team and the memories of our class discussions that guided me to making freedom tangible through caring for my daughters.  Just when I thought the loss—the loneliness—would wear me out, when I assumed I had lived a metaphoric manifestation of Paul D’s ominous warning about thick love, it was the thickness of my love that sustained me and allowed me to create with my children as a fixture in my environment. 

With the world reopening and potentially taking me from my children—with them returning to school and me to campus—I wonder if this is our next stage of dreaming of a freedom that never truly existed.  Could those pre-mask days when there was no option for me to write, work, care for my children, and find my color in the security of my own home have been the Sweet Home we should have always been trying to escape?  I now crave the color of this intermingled space where my mothering, my teaching, and my work exist to support one another.  I realize that I’ve been searching for those “patches of orange” in the midst of all the “scraps of blue serge, black, brown, and gray” like Baby Suggs and her quilt—searching for the wildness of a reality I’ve been striving for my whole life (38).  Searching for color.



Morrison, T. Beloved. Plume, 1987.



Ebony Lumumba, Ph.D. is an associate professor and chair of English at Jackson State University.  She writes, teaches, and thinks most about Black women's resistance and Global South literature.

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